Politics & Government

Funds OK'd for kids hurt by meth

WASHINGTON -- Meth messes up kids. Congress offers help.

On Monday, the House readily approved a $40 million grant program designed to assist drug-endangered children. The funding is modest.

The results, California lawmakers believe, are worth it.

"Sadly, I have seen the destructive effects of drug abuse, particularly methamphetamine use, on children in my district," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, adding that the bill will assist "the children abandoned, neglected or abused" by drug-using parents.

Cardoza authored the legislation, which extends for another two years a grant program initially approved as part of a 2005 anti-terrorism law. The grants flow to states and ultimately to counties where methamphetamine and other drugs can poison families.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is pushing a similar bill in the Senate.

Despite recent signs of progress, California remains a problem state for methamphetamine.

"We've been to numerous homes where the kids come back as testing positive for meth, some of them as young as six months," said Bob Pennal, commander of the Fresno Meth Task Force.

In 2004, 356 California children were reported as being directly affected by an illegal meth lab. This exceeded all other states, according to the federal National Clandestine Laboratory Database.

Nationwide, 1,660 children were counted as affected by drug labs in 2005.

Most affected children are younger than 5, though law enforcement officials believe many exposures go unreported. Meth exposure can complicate breathing, burn the skin and sicken the body, as well as increase the likelihood of abusive and unsafe living conditions, officials say.

"Any time you're smoking meth, or smoking crack, then the kids are getting cross-contamination," Pennal said.

The White House, through its drug czar's office, began a national drug-endangered children program in 2003. Congress added funding in 2005. Nearly half of California's counties now have drug-endangered children programs of one kind or another.

Fresno County signed a formal agreement with Pennal's meth task force earlier this year. As part of the drug-endangered children program, the county assigned a social worker to assist the narcotics officers, who in turn bought the social worker a van, using seized drug assets. The social worker will accompany the team on raids where children are expected.

In one recent raid, Pennal said, investigators found three children living in a San Joaquin Valley home where the airborne chemical levels were 1,000 times the level considered safe.